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Charles Waterson - The wild man of Stonyhurst

PUBLISHED: 12:42 05 July 2010 | UPDATED: 00:49 24 October 2015

Jan Graffius with one of the exhibits

Jan Graffius with one of the exhibits

A collection celebrating the life of an extraordinary man is coming home to Lancashire – bringing with it quite a tale. Roger Borrell reports

Just what do you do with a schoolboy who is disruptive, unruly and refuses to learn? The answer back in the late 1700s when applied to a ten-        year-old called Charles Waterton would cause consternation among modern educationalists.

‘They gave him a crossbow, a pack of hunting dogs and put him in charge of pest control. Basically, he was the rat killer,’ says Jan Graffius, curator of Lancashire’s Stonyhurst College.

Charles took his duties so seriously he seems to have single-handedly eradicated the fumart, or pine marten, from the Ribble Valley. So successful was he, that the fur of this unfortunate creature was used to make hats for his fellow pupils.

You would have expected such an upbringing to have produced an adult with an unhealthy interest in killing anything that moved. In fact, Charles grew up to be the David Attenborough of his day, albeit a rather more eccentric version. In fact, the television naturalist is a great admirer of Charles, who also inspired Darwin.

He was originally schooled in Liverpool where attempts to beat an education into him proved fruitless. In desperation, he was sent to Stonyhurst at Hurst Green to be taught by the Jesuits brothers.

They made a deep impression on him - but not with the cane. ‘They seemed to have seen something in him and realised he was no ordinary boy,’ says Jan.

‘Their treatment of him left Charles with a deep affection for the Jesuits.’

So deep, that for the rest of his days he returned to Stonyhurst to celebrate Christmas and he had a version of the school uniform made
so he could continue wearing it throughout his adulthood. This was,
you may be surprised to learn, one his least quirky traits.

After leaving school, Charles spent years studying wildlife while wandering through South America, especially in Guyana, where his family had an estate.

During that time he built up an extraordinary array of birds, mammals, reptiles and insects many of which came to Stonyhurst to form a highly impressive collection.

‘He was one of the first people to put forward the belief that man was put on earth to protect wildlife not to exploit and eat it,’

While the adult Charles built up a considerable following for his research, his strange behaviour often ruined his credibility in the scientific community. For instance, in the wild he often slept with his feet exposed in the hope he would be bitten by a vampire bat ‘to see what it would be like.’

Stranger still, his response to dull dinner parties was to scuttle around on all fours, barking like a dog and biting the ankles of his guests.
He also drew criticism for presenting what he claimed was a wild creature,
half man, half beast. He eventually had to admit it was made from a monkey’s bottom and bore a strong resemblance to a customs officer he’d argued with.

During his time in Guyana, he stunned native Indians by dragging
an 11ft cayman from a river and riding on its back. He refused to let them shoot it as it would spoil the creature for preservation and, instead, had its throat cut.

He became fascinated by the poison the Indians used on their hunting darts and, after acquiring a quantity, he set about a series of experiments. The most famous was when he used it to knock out a donkey. Because it worked by paralysing the lungs, he performed a tracheotomy and kept it alive using a pair of bellows. The donkey lived for another 30 years and Charles was credited with performing the first general anaesthetic.

The Waterton collection amounted to about 1,000 items - many still kept
in the cases Charles had made for the purpose. For the last 40 years it has been on loan to the museum in his birthplace of Wakefield, but over the next five years it will gradually return to Stonyhurst’s Tudor Long Room on permanent display.

Jan has begun the daunting task of restoring many of the items and, as
you can imagine, anything connected with this remarkable man is less than straightforward.

‘Taxidermy then was very rudimentary and the results didn’t look life-like,’ she says. ‘He devised a process using incredibly dangerous chemicals, which allowed animals to be modelled back into shape.’
The results are remarkably realistic and completely hollow. They also remain dangerous and Jan has to wear protective clothing and a face mask when she works on the collection.

It’s a job full of challenges for the curator. For instance, there is a tarantula which still has poisonous hairs on its back and a porcupine with razor-sharp quills.

While some regard Waterton as the first passionate ecologist it could have so different if a teacher at Stonyhurst hadn’t taken him to one side on the day he was due to leave. ‘We think you will be all right,’ he was told. ‘But you must never drink alcohol.’

He was a handful sober, once shinning up the lightning conductor above St Peter’s in Rome much to the annoyance of the Pope. Just imagine what he would have been like drunk!

Tales from the Long Room

Charles Waterton (1782-1865) was described by David Attenborough as ‘one of the first people anywhere to recognise not only that the natural world was of great importance but that it needed protection as humanity made more and more demands on it.’

His words are framed in the Long Room and hang beneath a new portrait of Charles by former student Helena Callinicos.

Stonyhurst and the Long Room are open to the public from July 26 to August 30, daily except Fridays, between 1pm and 4.30pm. The gardens are also open


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